Floating football pitch keeps Thailand's tourist blues at bay

A fisherman steers his boat past fish farms in the water off Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP
A fisherman steers his boat past fish farms in the water off Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP
Children sell souvenirs to tourists disembarking from a speedboat as they arrive on Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP
Children sell souvenirs to tourists disembarking from a speedboat as they arrive on Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP
Youngsters recovering a football from the water as they play on a floating pitch in Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Youngsters recovering a football from the water as they play on a floating pitch in Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Youngsters playing football on a floating football pitch in Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP
Youngsters playing football on a floating football pitch in Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province. -- PHOTO: AFP
Tourists disembarking from long-tail boats as they arrive to Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province, on Oct 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Tourists disembarking from long-tail boats as they arrive to Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province, on Oct 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Youngsters playing football on a floating football pitch in Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province, on Oct 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Youngsters playing football on a floating football pitch in Koh Panyee, in Thailand's southern Phang Nga province, on Oct 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

KOH PANYEE, Thailand (AFP) - With its stunning limestone cliffs towering over stilt houses surrounded by azure waters, the island of Panyee is a typical Thai paradise. But it's not mother nature drawing tourists here - it's a floating football pitch.

Thailand's tourism industry has taken a battering this year following months of protests, the May military coup, the subsequent imposition of martial law and the brutal slaying of two young Britons on the holiday isle of Koh Tao in September.

The Immigration Bureau says there has been a near 9 per cent drop in tourist arrivals between January and October compared to the same period in 2013 - a painful blow for the millions of Thais whose livelihoods depend on the industry.

But in Panyee, part of Thailand's picturesque Phanga Nga province, foreign visitors keep coming thanks to excitement over the community's innovative and highly unusual football pitch.

Nestled next to the largely Muslim island's ferry pier, the 16m by 25m pitch has become something of a national treasure after an advertising campaign by a Thai bank in 2010 made the fishing community locally famous for their dedication to football.

"What do you do when you come to Panyee Island? You must see the floating football pitch," beams island chief Muhammad Prasanpan, who says 50,000 baht to 70,000 baht (S$1,981 to S$2,773) now comes in from tourists each day.

That represents a fivefold income increase for the 320 household-island since a decade ago when fishing was its mainstay, the chief says.

The island has long had a reputation for football-obsessed inhabitants who have refused to let something as inconvenient as a complete lack of flat surfaces hold them back from practising the "Beautiful Game".

Originally islanders played on a beach, but could only do so during low tide when enough sand was visible.

The first floating pitch was built 30 years ago but was a dangerous hotchpotch of wooden boards knocked together with rusty nails.

"We had to avoid nails coming up. It was risky and dangerous. But we had to play on it because we had no pitch," recalls boat driver Prakit Prasanpan, sporting the local team's shirt.

Inspired by their dedication, TMB Bank commissioned a series of adverts charting the local team's success in a football tournament despite the rickety pitch. After the campaign aired the islanders, with help from the local authorities, built themselves a new - and crucially nail-free - floating pitch.

Since those adverts aired in 2011, Panyee has become famous both locally - and increasingly internationally - for football.

But the pitch has done more than attract new arrivals. It has kept the island's younger inhabitants from leaving.

Depopulation is often a major problem in Thailand's poor communities, with youngsters travelling significant distances to find better paid work - usually to support large families back home.

In Panyee the young are staying put. The island's population has increased to 1,800 from 1,200 over the last 10 years.

"Jobs here are better than on the mainland - the young can find money more easily here, they can earn thousands of baht driving canoes," explains 74-year-old Mr Aporn Janchulee, a market stall holder.

But other tourist hotspots are not so fortunate. Between January and October tourism income in Thailand fell 6.1 per cent compared with to the same period last year to 905 million baht.

With so many reliant on tourism in a country that dubs itself the "Land of Smiles", Thailand's generals know they must restore confidence.

The junta have vowed to "Return beaches to the people" - a side project of their wider promise to "Return happiness to Thailand".

The first clean-up campaign was launched in the large resort island of Phuket where the authorities took down unregistered umbrella and food stalls.

But while the campaign restored a more pristine look to some of Phuket's beaches, it angered many local businesses.

Meanwhile, the junta's attempts to bolster tourism were dealt a blow by the September murder of Mr David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Ms Hannah Witheridge, 23 on Koh Tao.

The authorities have charged two Myanmar nationals with killing the British pair but they later retracted their confessions, alleging they were obtained under duress.

Thailand's junta leader Prayut Chan-ocha also caused widespread dismay after the murders when he suggested that attractive foreign women could not expect to be safe from attack if they walked around in bikinis. He later made a rare apology for his remarks.

Back in Panyee, the locals hope Thailand's tourist troubles don't put off visitors - and that the floating pitch will continue to draw curious football fans - if they are to provide for future generations.

As village chief Muhammad concludes: "I think we should keep the football pitch for our children and grandchildren because we can say that the floating pitch is unique to the village."